It's not considered an especially important album, but I can certainly make a case for it being quite an important album in the arc which us overly serious rockist music fans and critics adhere to. It's an Americana album from 1996, which was a Britpop year. It's far from the first Americana album, however you use that term. It was made by a band led by the lesser member, Jeff Tweedy, of an influential Americana band, Uncle Tupelo. It was their second album, and the first 'AM' had been pretty underwhelming and shown no great signs of promise, while the career of his bitterly estranged erstwhile colleague Jay Farrar's band, Son Volt, seemed to be going from strength to strength.
Yet it's Wilco now who are one of the most consistently acclaimed bands of the last 20 years, who've been described in terms like "the new REM" and "the American Radiohead".
Looking back, I can say I had an inkling. I had never heard of Wilco, or Jeff Tweedy, or Uncle Tupelo, and I was still very much a Britpop boy, when I received an NME in early 1997 (while overseas) with a large, glowing review of this album (several months after its U.S release). There was something fishy here. Why was the NME devoting so much space to this unknown American band when we all know they should only really roll out the red carpet for the likes of Mansun and Shed Seven? It seemed anomalous at the time, though looking back, one wonders if some kindly wise journo was saying "All, right, kids, that's enough of the stuff we were into when we were young, this is a little harbinger of what's going to matter to us all when we're adults" ... something like that.
I didn't listen to 'Being There' till two or three years later - it was its follow-up, 'Summerteeth' which really got me into Wilco, after Mercury Rev had really steered me in this new American direction. It's a double album, it's a statement of intent, not entirely consistent in its quality, but it makes its mark.
It's the first song, really. 'Misunderstood'. Like I said, 'AM' is a fairly bland album of unremarkable country-rock with a couple of nice tunes. Looking back, you can say it's the bridge between Uncle Tupelo and the real Wilco but, at the time, it was largely ignored. Then came, at the start of 'Being There', 'Misunderstood', the quantumest of quantum leaps, a demanding, dark, atmospheric indie-folk-rock epic which presaged the truly great band Wilco were going to turn into. In truth, it fits better on their masterpiece 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' than it does on this album. It's a hint of the songwriter Tweedy was capable of becoming.
As was the six-minute Side 2 opener, 'Sunken Treasure', mournful in pace but quietly, sadly inspirational in outlook. The album is grounded in these two monster tracks, which are pretty much the only songs from this album I've seen Wilco play live regularly.
Otherwise, there's a little more to get your teeth into in Side 1 than Side 2. In the fly-on-the-wall documentary 'I am Trying to Break Your Heart' about the tough time Wilco had making 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', you see Tweedy dismissing the likes of 'Outtasite (Outta Mind)' and 'Monday' as "easy rockers", as if he was almost embarrassed by them, but they're top class easy rockers and, significantly, in recent years, as his fire has died down, Wilco albums have more and more easy going, catchy easy rockers, as if he has accepted his gift for those kind of songs and finally run with it.
There are also several sweet, sweet country ballads, from 'Say You Miss Me' to 'What's the World Got in Store'. The second side is a bit more one-paced, but you can see the intent in making a double album and, for once, the intent overrides the content. Compared at the time to 'Exile on Main Street', this is Wilco expanding their sound, indeed expanding the possibilities of alt-country itself, you could say ushering in a new age of classic American rock, after Britpop had tried (and most would say, failed) to do the same for English rock.
This isn't their best album or the most enjoyable to listen to - if I was grading them, I'd put at least four conclusively above it, but if, like me, you think the best rock music of the last 20 years as mainly been made by groups of middle-aged American men, then this album can take a fair amount of the blame!
I gave Super Furry Animals a 40 song compilation, and I could do the same for Wilco, who, in consistent quality, in combining the old and the new, are America's equivalent. I won't though, as we can't have two winners. So 30 for Wilco ...
She's a Jar
You'll Never Know
Dawned on Me
On and On and On
Ashes of American Flags
I am Trying to Break Your Heart
The Late Greats
I'm a Wheel
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Say You Miss Me
I Must Be High
Hate It Here
I Got you (At the End of the Century)